The tradition of gathering flowers, stringing them into a beautiful lei and sharing with others is an ancient tradition still popular today. Polynesian voyagers brought this fragrant custom to the Hawaiian Islands. Wearing a lei represented wealth, royalty, and rank. There are even leis to signify which island a person is from. Hula dancers and spiritual leaders were also adorned with leis. Today, a lei is a symbol of aloha, meaning love, friendship, celebration, honor, or greeting.
Different types of Lei
Traditionally, Hawaiians often preferred the Maile lei–a leafy vine that has fragrant spicy-sweet leaves that is draped and worn open-ended to the waist. You will still see Maile commonly worn, especially by men because of its more earthy appearance. Each island has its own type of lei too. On Maui, that is the Lokelani Rose lei. Often you will see a Lokelani lei as tight flower buds, ranging in color from white or green to pink and red. Hawaiian Princess Kaiulani’s favorite lei was the Pikake—named after the peacocks in her garden—for the heavenly white blossoms and sweet jasmine fragrance.
Here are the leis representing each island.
- Hawaii – Lehua
- Oahu – Ilima
- Maui – Lokelani
- Kauai – Mokihana
- Molokai – Kukui
- Lanai – Kaunaoa
- Niihau – Pupu
- Kaho’olawe – Hinahina
Lei are not only made from flowers, but also from nuts, seeds and shells. For example, Molokai’s signature lei is made from kukui nuts. The official state tree of Hawaii is the kukui nut tree. It’s known elsewhere as the candlenut tree. Historians consider the kukui nut tree in Hawaii as one of a number of “canoe plants.” This because the Polynesians brought such seeds with them in canoes when they first came to Hawaii. The nut was particularly useful. Hawaiians used the oil from the nuts to coat fisherman’s nets or to illuminate candle-pods. The outer shell of the rich-colored nuts became a natural dye for tattoos. Also, Hawaiians utilized kukui nut oil as topical dressing for massaging sore muscles, soothing burns, chapped skin and wounds.
Shell lei are an ancient Hawaiian custom, predating any contact with other cultures. Early visitors described shell leis and ornaments primarily made of seashells, though some were also made of land shells which were once common throughout the Islands.
Instead of May Day, Hawaii’s flower celebration is Lei Day, celebrated on May 1st since 1928. Whether it is May Day or Lei Day, local residents love the spring festivities honoring our beautiful flowers and leis.
Leis are shared with the aloha spirit. It is very bad manners to refuse a lei. Graciously allow the giver to place the lei over your head and return a warm smile. A hug or kiss on the cheek if the person is familiar is appropriate.
If you are allergic or sensitive to flowers, then discreetly and apologetically slip-off the lei. It is acceptable and considered a kind gesture to offer the lei to your spouse or family member if you are unable to wear it.
Many tourist outlets pass along a made-up tale about tossing a lei into the sea, and if it drifts back you are destined to return. A nice sentiment, but we prefer you not discard your lei in the ocean. Modern lei can contain plastic connectors which harms marine life. The string can act as a noose. Hawaiian custom is to return lei to the earth. You can remove the flowers from the string once you are done wearing the lei and sprinkle them along a path or at the beach. Most string is biodegradable and can be safely deposited in the trash.
Among its many other meanings, the lei has become a symbol of welcome in Hawaii. A lei is a nice way to greet visitors, and introduce you to a meaningful island tradition.